By Laura Briggs, author of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump
It’s always been unclear whether the goal of the Trump White House was to limit the number of undocumented immigrants in this country, or just to terrorize them and keep them as vulnerable, underpaid workforce, and the recent debate about DACA underscores that fact.
Our economy relies on immigrant labor, and needs it to be cheap—and not just for the reasons most people think. The majority of immigrants to the United States, and nearly half the undocumented population are women, and many of them are doing household labor—cleaning, caring for children, elders, and others who cannot care for themselves. They’re not doing it so the rest of us can have more down time—far from it. On average, everybody is working more. As real wages have declined, the middle class has hung on by throwing more adults into the labor force, mostly women. In 1960, 20 percent of mothers worked. Today, 70 percent of U.S. children live in households where all the adults are employed. So who’s doing the household work? Business certainly has not picked up the tab; workers in the U.S. aren’t even guaranteed sick days, never mind childcare. We haven’t raised taxes for government to pay for it, either. Indeed, the most revealing moments in the debate over the Affordable Care Act repeal were when Republicans admitted that to get Medicaid costs down, sick elders needed to get out of nursing homes and go back to living with their families (read: daughters—Paul Ryan sure wasn’t planning to go part-time to care for his mother.)
So for the whole economic calculus to work—in which women must work, but get paid less than men (to the benefit of their employers), and we don’t raise taxes to pay for government programs, something had to give. This was the brilliance of the 1990s crackdown on undocumented immigrants: it ensured that there a class of women who could be paid even less than women who were citizens, at exactly the moment when the economy most needed them. During the Clinton administration, three key things happened. Walmart became the largest single employer in the country, owing much of their “efficiency” to women’s low wages. The controversy over Zöe Baird’s nomination as attorney general—“Nannygate”—launched a nationwide enforcement crackdown on immigrants without papers, beginning with the couple that Baird was sponsoring for green cards, Lillian and Victor Cordero. And the number of middle class households hiring nannies and housekeepers began to grow exponentially.
Immigration enforcement of the sort the U.S. has been doing since then doesn’t necessarily mean all undocumented immigrants get deported. It may just make them vulnerable, trapping people in exploitative jobs. One mother of triplets told the New York Times why she wanted to hire someone who was undocumented: “I want someone who cannot leave the country… who doesn’t know anyone in New York, who basically does not have a life. I want someone who is completely dependent on me.” While some households just wanted to employ someone who was reliable and “affordable,” others were abusive and even violent. A 2012 study of household workers in fourteen cities found abysmal working conditions, with many reporting sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. Among live-in nannies, many did not even have their own bed; they were expected to sleep with the children in their care. There was also widespread wage theft, with 67% earning less than minimum wage. While race was also a factor, the single best predictor of how much people got paid was immigration status, with undocumented workers earning the least.
There’s a surprisingly clear case to be made that the Trump administration, for all its sound and fury, is not terribly interested in deporting large numbers of people. It’s not only Donald Trump’s personal history of hiring undocumented workers—the fact that Trump Tower was built by people without papers and that his modeling agency relied on them—it’s also what’s happened since he took office. For one thing, when his transition team discovered that his pick for Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, had hired an undocumented household worker—the exact thing Zöe Baird went down for—they didn’t see it as disqualifying. Rather, they had Ross withhold the information until the last minute, in his tightly controlled confirmation hearing. Apparently, the administration was fine with having key positions held by people who were in favor of illegal immigration—at Commerce, at Labor (if they hadn’t been bested by Andrew Pudzer’s critics), and in the Oval Office itself.
Most significantly, the number of deportations under Trump has actually declined, and is on track to be lower than during any year of Obama’s presidency. Arrests and detentions have increased, to be sure. While Obama, the careful lawyer, restricted the actions of ICE to arrest and detain those most likely to be deported, the Trump administration has encouraged aggressive policing, creating terror, and a huge backlog of cases awaiting a hearing in immigration court. “When you go out and you arrest a whole bunch of people willy-nilly [an immigration judge] has got to fill his docket time hearing those arguments,” John Sandweg, acting director of ICE in 2013-14, told Politico. While it’s possible that more judges would mean more deportations, many of the people picked up are later released. In other words, it’s not yet clear whether this is a campaign to make immigrants afraid, or deport them.
This raises a question about all the back and forth about DACA: is the goal really to deport young people, or is it just to raise the flag that the administration is ambivalent about immigrants getting an education and a work permit, instead of remaining part of a permanent underclass of low-paid, illegal workers. One thing is clear: U.S. immigration policy has produced the largest exploitable, deterritorialized labor force since slavery times. Many of them are women, doing “women’s work.” Any effort at immigration reform—whether for the 1 million Dreamers or the estimated 10 million other undocumented immigrants—will have to take account of household and care work. Someone still has to watch the kids.
Laura Briggs is chair and professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump. Read the first chapter here.
Watch Laura discuss her book’s thesis, economics, race, and family on last Sunday’s episode of The Open Mind on PBS.